Tom Ovens gives an overview of UCL’s little-known Fossil Free campaign and their goals for the year
On a rainy Monday evening last week, a group of 30 or 40 students attended the launch of the UCL Fossil Free campaign. It was a mixed group: plenty of students from environmental areas but also historians, philosophers, and lawyers. There were Freshers, fourth years, PhD students, and representation from all over the globe. But there was one common passion: climate change (and how to stop it).
Three weeks ago, Glasgow University became the first academic institution in Europe to take its money out of the fossil fuel industry. After a year of campaigning that involved over 1,300 students, the University voted to sell its £18 million investments in fossil fuels and freeze all new investments of this kind.
The move represented the latest landmark in a snowballing worldwide trend that has already seen a large number of universities, religious organisations, cities and other institutions end their support for coal, oil and gas companies – the industries proven to be making a significant contribution to global warming.
As Pekka Piirainen of UCL Fossil Free explained, UCL is seriously behind the times on this specific issue. As of October last year, the university has about £14.5 million directly invested in fossil fuel companies such as Shell, BP, and Total, as well as another £6.7 million in banks involved with major fossil fuel projects. The administration has appeared reluctant to consider alternative investments, like renewable energy.
Piirainen set up the UCL Fossil Free campaign along with a small group of others in September 2013. A petition to end UCL’s involvement with fossil fuels now has nearly 700 signatures. The society’s committee has met several times with UCL management and staged protests at events on campus – including an ill-fated attempt to smuggle somebody in a polar-bear suit into a talk by the vice president of Shell. “We did manage to get the speaker’s attention,” says Piirainen.
Limited resources for Piirainen’s group, however, have so far prevented the success seen in Glasgow and elsewhere.
Their goal this year is to change that. The launch event included a series of working groups focusing on student and staff engagement, event planning and cooperation with other societies. The enthusiasm was striking. “It seemed like the room was twice as full as it actually was,” said Maisie Harrison, a first-year in Combined Arts and Sciences.
It remains to be seen if the enthusiasm is sustained. Ultimately, whether UCL begins to listen to the campaign depends on the involvement of the wider student population. Maisie Harrison certainly hopes people will get on board, saying: “UCL is such a progressive university – it would be a shame for that tradition to die”.
Featured image credit: UKYCC